What’s a “MacGuffin?”

Posted by Casey Budden on Dec 10, 2018 12:48:17 PM

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Sometimes derisively referred to as a “plot coupon,” a MacGuffin is a device in scriptwriting, a “thing” which the protagonist pursues, often loosely defined, which serves as their primary motivation and goal in the film. Alfred Hitchcock is often credited with coining the term; in a 1939 lecture at Columbia University in New York, he attempted to define it:

“It might be a Scottish name, taken from a story about two men on a train. One man says, 'What's that package up there in the baggage rack?' And the other answers, 'Oh, that's a MacGuffin'. The first one asks, 'What's a MacGuffin?' 'Well,' the other man says, 'it's an apparatus for trapping lions in the Scottish Highlands.' The first man says, 'But there are no lions in the Scottish Highlands,' and the other one answers, 'Well then, that's no MacGuffin!' So you see that a MacGuffin is actually nothing at all.”

In the film Ronin, for example, the MacGuffin was a metal briefcase whose contents were never revealed, but which all the characters in the film were desperate to obtain. The audience does not know, and does not need to know, what is inside the briefcase; the MacGuffin is charged with such importance that its significance does not need to be explained to serve its narrative purpose.

Examples of famous “Macguffins”:

  • The Maltese Falcon (The Maltese Falcon, 1941)
  • The Holy Grail (Monty Python and the Holy Grail, 1975)
  • “ROSEBUD” (Citizen Kane, 1941)
  • Marcellus Wallace’s case (Pulp Fiction, 1994)
  • The One Ring (The Lord of the Rings Trilogy, 2001-2003)
  • The Necronomicon (Army of Darkness, 1992)
  • The Ark (Raiders of the Lost Ark, 1981)

Tags: Film and entertainment insurance

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